Goodbye to binders!

Project Documents: Week 1

After a few weeks of getting my notebooks into electronic format, I feel like I am starting to get a handle on how to truly go paperless.

I have recycled all of my paper notebooks and have started to fill my OneNote notebooks with all of my great ideas, sketches, and project notes.

Now that I am a notebook ninja, I can move on to the next huge paperless challenge: project documents.

Don’t let these two little words fool you. Project documents mean all those wonderful moments of trying to be a renaissance man of order: tabbing, colour coding and building binders to try and exemplify the epitome of organization. The binders of magical triumph now need to be moved into the cloud.

To recap how I currently manage my project documents:

Project documents. I currently have 11 binders in my office: 1 binder for each of my two companies, 5 binders for my 3 non-profit Boards and required committee work, 1 strategic-planning binder, 1 policies and procedures binder, and 2 large-project binders. Each 1.5” – 2.0” thick. That is almost two linear feet of paper.

My project documents are unstructured information. The documents are generally Microsoft Office documents: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. They are generated by me, or by someone who has then sent it to me (usually via email). I print them and put them into my binders.

Why binders? I am not sure. The notion of printing a document and then filing it into a binder suddenly seems crazy. Even crazier is someone creating a document electronically, printing it, sending it to me on paper, and then I scan it into my system so I have an electronic copy. That actually happens. All the time. Binders seem to be a way of turning my documents into a book that I can thumb through. Look up info. Be the king of all knowledge.

So I am thinking that if most of my documents are created electronically (no typewriters around here), then they should be relatively easy to manage electronically.

There are three things to figure out with respect to my project documents:

  1. How to capture this paper electronically.
  2. How to file and store this paper electronically.
  3. How to consume this paper electronically.

Let’s start with the first challenge: How to capture paper electronically.

Capturing project documents

Easy. Going back to my previous point, most of my files are already generated electronically, so capturing that document really means getting a copy of the original file electronically. I generate at least one half of my documents. So getting an electronic copy of those files is a non-issue. The other half of my documents are generated by others. Getting those electronically is proving to be tougher.

Now that I am focused on going paperless, I am actually shocked to discover how much of our information is exchanged ON PAPER! So to get an electronic copy, I have two choices: 1) ask for a digital copy, or 2) scan a copy of the paper original.

I prefer the first choice, so here is what you will hear me asking at least two or three times per day: “thanks Bill for the project schedule…could you please send me an electronic copy of this document?”

Then I shred the paper version. Or give it back to the originator so that they can recycle it (is that poor form? I usually preface giving the document back with a story about my going paperless).

So now I have about 95% of my documents in pure electronic form (either as an original or a PDF version), and about 5% are scanned copies. The scanned documents are usually reports generated by some system where they can’t send me an original digital version – like a financial report or a contact list.

Next up, filing and storing project documents.

Filing and storing project documents

OK, this is the crux of the project document journey. This will be the remainder of this post, and it might consume a couple more posts as well.

Before I begin to describe some of the problems with filing and storing electronic documents, there are three truths that drive my thinking:

  1. 99.99% of project documents should be available to other project team members – there are almost no “private” or “personal” project documents. This means that most documents need to be in shared spaces, not private spaces. Even my most personal and confidential documents are shared … with my spouse.
  2. Organization is key. A system for filing, searching, and retrieving documents is critical. Ask any librarian about the importance of a system.
  3. Available anywhere is critical. Having all of my documents in digital form means that I should be able to access them anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Shared, organized and anywhere. The key to success? Sounds like a good start.

So let’s examine the three pieces: shared, organized and anywhere.

Shared Files

At our office, we have a file server upon which we store all of our company files. We map a drive to that server called the O: drive. The O: drive contains folders that are accessible to all of our staff members. We have no restricted access to those with a company login, working on the assumption that all of our staff generally need trusted access to our files.

Of course there are some exceptions such as HR and payroll files. We have these on another system to allow those files to be secured from the general staff population.


Our company files are easy. We have a company server, and we all get access to the project documents. But there are files that I need to store that my company team shouldn’t be able to access: my non-profit board work and my personal documents.

In order to store those away from my staff, I am testing two shared file systems: DropBox and BTSync. With both of these systems, I can create a set of file folders that are secured and accessible by me only. With both of these systems, I can share any of the files or folders with others and because I manage the security, I can ensure the privacy of that information.

I will share more about my experiences with DropBox and BTSync in a future post.

Organized Files

There is no easy answer to organizing files. The structure and system must meet your individual needs, and those with whom you are sharing the information.

Do you file by customer, by project, by topic, by department, by person, by date? Some or all? Do you use standard subfolders? Do you add meta-data (data about data) to the files to allow for easier search?

There is a whole industry built around document management. I won’t be able to answer all of those questions in this post, but I can offer my starting points. I will experiment and see how it goes.

I do know that I need a system, and that system must be consistently implemented.

My information structure is evolving, but there are some things that I learned over the past few weeks:

  1. The structure needs to work for the whole team, so spend some time as a team to figure out what works best.
  2. The structure will evolve. We think we have it right and then we make some adjustments to make it work better.
  3. Meta-data is generally difficult if it is managed manually. It is wonderful to tag documents with all sorts of meta-data: author, date created, geo location, project name, client, etc. However, if generated manually, it doesn’t get done. Or it doesn’t get done properly. Then the whole meta-data system falls apart. So I don’t rely on that data. The filing structure is what I rely on, not the meta data.
  4. Keep it consistent. It really has to be easy to use and to understand. Consistency is the best way to get others to buy into your system.

In my first few weeks of the paperless journey, I have created or enhanced three filing systems:

The first is our O: drive. It contains our corporate files, our project files, and our customer files.

The second is my DropBox and BTSync systems. They contain my personal files and my non-profit Board files.

The third is our secure system for files like HR and payroll.

Anywhere Files

It is so critical to me that I am able to access any file, any time, anywhere, on any device.

Going paperless is not easy, but one of the big payoffs is the ability to access your digital files in an organized, streamlined and live time manner from anywhere. At the coffee shop- great I can work. Travelling – I have my whole office at my fingertips.

Looking at my three file systems (O:drive, DropBox/BTSync, Secure drive), only one of them is truly accessible anywhere: the DropBox / BTSync systems. Those are truly cloud technologies and have software to allow me to access files from anywhere, any time, on any device.

The O: drive and the secure drive are not accessible beyond the walls of our office. So I have a big challenge ahead to see how to best make those files available anywhere.

Next week: Moving the O: drive and the Secure drive to the cloud and how to make those files available, accessible and secure.

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